Being an empowered participant in dying and death: A conversation with Death Doula Sarah Kerr
Personal Stories | May 13, 2022 | Sarah Dobec
In celebration of International Doula Month, we spoke to Sarah Kerr about the work of death doulas and how they can support patients and families though the end-of-life experience.
When Sarah Kerr’s father had a serious stroke at the age of 75, she realized that she had never been that close to illness and death before. It was a wake-up call that she needed to learn how to confront and experience death more fluently. Sarah’s PhD thesis was on ritual, and how Western people can draw on the wisdom of ancient ritual practices to meet the big transitions in their lives. It was a combination of those two things that lead her to her practice as a full-time death doula and trainer since 2012.
We asked Sarah to expand on the concept of ritual and her work as a doula. “Throughout history, ritual is how we navigated soul journeys. For those of us who are not affiliated with an organized religion or a formal spiritual practice that has a set of rituals to follow, we are a little lost. So, the work I do is around helping people form new rituals that fit a modern sensibility and are inclusive enough to welcome all sorts of people and address the issues of the soul.”
She goes on to say, “We are more than just our bodies. Medical, palliative and hospice care is well suited to support us physically, but we’re not just our bodies. Death is the separation of body and soul. And so, we need support for that part of us, not only for the person who is dying but for all those who care about them, because it is also a soul journey to lose someone. In a way, we lost the space for the concept of the soul when we adopted material science as our organizing principle, and when we became less connected to organized religion. We are feeling the impact of that in our culture, and the lack of ritual associated with dying and death.”
All the moments associated with death can be ritualized: leading up to, right before, at the time of, after, and even in body preparation. A death doula can help prepare a patient and/or their loved ones for some or all of the above. “We are non-medical support people that can help folks with the logistical and psychological process of dying. It often involves facilitating conversations among families to help everyone get on the same page and filling the gaps between what the medical system offers and what the funeral system offers; it is continuous support throughout the entire dying process. Every death doula operates in their own unique way, but this is the core and some examples of our work,” Sarah explained to us.
Sarah cautions people that they can start too late reaching out to a death doula in the process of death, but you can’t really start too early. “Talking about death does not bring it on, but it does help make it easier. In an initial call, my goal is to identify what their intention is around the imminent death. People don’t want death to be happening, but if it is, it is helpful to know that they have a choice about how to meet it. I want to know what the spiritual values are that a person wants to guide their death journey, and once we identify what that is, we use it as a tuning fork against which we measure everything.”
“Death can often feel like something that is happening to us and, there is a biological reality to this, but we still have a choice in how we respond. This helps us feel less like victims and more like empowered participants in a process. Often people do not know that they need a doula, but they know that they want their death experience to be more sacred and to have meaning; death doulas can help facilitate this.”
Sarah offers her services as a death doula; she also trains people interested in this work or those who want to transform their relationship with death and with life.